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Tiger may be spectator to season's title races

Just think if John Rollins had not missed the 18th green at La Costa with a wedge.

Tiger Woods was headed toward another first-round loss at the Match Play Championship in February, trailing Rollins with two holes to play. Woods squared the match with an 8-iron into 18 inches on the 17th, then was let off the hook when his opponent hit sand wedge into the bunker on the final hole and made bogey.

Woods survived the scare, scraped through five more matches and won for the 40th time in his PGA Tour career.

No one suspected that would be the only trophy he held all year.

It's bad enough that Woods just completed his second straight season without a major, matching his career-long drought at 10 without winning the tournaments that matter the most.

Imagine the heat Woods would feel if he had lost that match to Rollins, and faced the final three months of the season trying to avoid a winless season while relying on a game that looks ordinary.

The bigger question: Where does he go from here?

"We have some big ones coming up," Woods said, trying to convince himself that the year is not lost.

He mentioned the NEC Invitational this week at Firestone and the American Express Championship next month in Ireland, two World Golf Championships that he has dominated.

There's the Ryder Cup, which has never been his favorite event, and the season ends at East Lake in Atlanta with the Tour Championship.

Yes, he's still eligible for that.

Just like last year, the Tour Championship could go a long way toward determining who wins the money list, the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average, and who states his case as PGA Tour player of the year.

Only this time, Woods won't be in the mix.

For the first time since he turned pro in 1996 at the Greater Milwaukee Open, the No. 1 player in the world - for at least one more week, anyway - has nothing to motivate him but pride.

His rookie season, Woods was trying to earn enough money to avoid going to Q-school. He won twice in his first seven events and wound up qualifying for the Tour Championship, still one of the most amazing feats of his career.

Even in 1998, when the BellSouth Classic was his only victory, Woods still had a chance to win the money title and the Vardon Trophy going into the Tour Championship, but David Duval wrapped up both awards.

There is still hope.

Woods won the NEC Invitational three straight times and has never finished worst than fifth in his six appearances at Firestone. He is the two-time defending champion at the American Express.

Even so, that would only dress up a tattered season.

The Big Three is now Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, even though Woods remains No. 1 in the ranking.

With a victory handed to him in the PGA Championship for his third major, Singh took a commanding lead on the money list with just over $6.9 million. That's nearly twice as much money as Woods.

Mickelson and Els are battling for the Vardon Trophy, separated by .04 in adjusted scoring average. Even more telling is that they have finished higher than Woods is the last five majors.

Woods still draws the big crowds.

He remains the only player who can drive television ratings, another example coming from Whistling Straits - the overnight rating was up 4 percent from last year (Shaun Micheel beating Chad Campbell), which was down 41 percent from the year before (Rich Beem holding off Woods).

But he no longer is the favorite in every tournament he plays, even when he has the lead going into the weekend.

The focus the rest of the year now shifts to Singh and Mickelson, and possibly Els.

Even that debate over who had the best season might only last until the 41-year-old Fijian wins again and rises to No. 1. Singh's five victories are three more than anyone else, and while Mickelson had an outstanding year in the majors, he still wound up with as many as Singh.

Mickelson came within five shots of winning all four majors, which could be a deciding factor if the race with Singh is close come November. Then again, one would think that a player of his ability would have won more than two times given that many chances. His other victory was the Bob Hope Classic.

Mickelson has played five fewer tournaments than Singh and has won more money per start, but Singh's five victories (three of those with Lefty in the field) are impossible to ignore.

Els was crushed by letting another major slip away, the last three his own doing. He shot 80 in the final group at the U.S. Open; missed a 12-foot birdie putt on the 18th in regulation and lost in a playoff at the British Open; then made bogey on the 72nd hole at the PGA Championship that cost him a spot in the playoff.

Unlike Woods, the Big Easy still has a chance to make this a big year.

He is one tournament away from returning to No. 1 in the world for the first time in six years. And while he would have to win all three of the big events left, still in the picture is becoming the first player to win the money title on both sides of the Atlantic.

It could be a pretty good show - one that Woods can only watch unfold.

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